CHOP SUEY NATION Part one: Searching for Huang Feng Zhu From Victoria to Fogo Island and in every province in between, Ann Hui drives across the country to uncover the immigrant history – and vibrant present – of small-town Chinese-Canadian food
CHOP SUEY NATION
From Victoria to Fogo Island and in every province in between, Ann Hui drives across the country to uncover the immigrant history – and vibrant present – of small-town Chinese-Canadian food
About an hour-long ferry ride off the northeast coast of Newfoundland, where the frigid waters of the Atlantic Ocean crash onto a jutting granite shoreline, is the tiny island of Fogo – a place so remote that conspiracy theorists believe it to be one of the four corners of the Earth.
And in a small village on this island – where wooden houses and clapboard sheds dot the shore like Monopoly pieces – is Kwang Tung Restaurant, Fogo Island’s very own Chinese café.
I first learned of Kwang Tung after stumbling across it in a food blog post titled “ I can’t believe there’s a Chinese restaurant in Fogo.” Like the author, I was bewildered. How did the restaurant wind up there? Why would someone decide to open a Chinese restaurant on Fogo Island? The post included a photo of a plate of food: a deep-fried egg roll, its blistered surface laid atop brown fried rice.
There was also a photo of the Kwang Tung menu, an inventory of Chinese-Canadian classics: sweet and sour won tons, moo goo guy pan and a long list of dishes dredged in batter, deep-fried and coated in sweet, sticky, vaguely spicy sauces. “Chinese Canadian food,” the writer proclaimed. “Good in that guilty pleasure kind of way.”
This was “chop suey” cuisine, which is distinct from “authentic” Chinese food. The name “chop suey” translates more or less into “assorted mix,” and refers to a repertoire of dishes mostly developed in North America in the mid-20th century. A mix of ideas both East and West and, to my eyes, frozen in time.
For my family, and every other Chinese family I knew growing up in Vancouver, food was an obsession. I would listen as relatives argued about which dim sum restaurant’s har gow wrapper was the thinnest, or whose xiao long bao the juiciest. Now living in Toronto, I’ve witnessed first-hand the rapid development of very diverse Chinese cuisines in this city, too.
I had assumed the small-town Chinese restaurant was a fading piece of the country’s history, a relic of the past. But, at least on Fogo Island, that didn’t seem to be the case. I wanted to know more.
“They are, in very much a weird way, a Canadian thing,” said Lily Cho, a York University professor who has written a book on Chinese restaurants. Of course there are Chinese-American restaurants in the United States, but the story up here – from the way the restaurants spread across the country along with the railroad, to the invention of dishes like Alberta ginger beef and Thunder Bay Bon Bon ribs – is uniquely Canadian.
These restaurants serve many purposes, said Cho. They create jobs and opportunities for newcomers and they fill a void for the entire community, often providing services and infrastructure that don’t otherwise exist. For a century and a half, they have been quintessential small-town Canadian institutions.
And, she said, they aren’t disappearing. Newcomers are still arriving in Canada and still moving to small towns to open Chinese restaurants. Just about every town across the country, I learned, has its own Chinese restaurant – according to some estimates, more Chinese restaurants than all fast-food restaurants combined.
I had so many questions: Why would these restaurant owners take the gamble to leave everything behind for this new place? Why open a Chinese restaurant, and why in a small town? And why does just about every Canadian town have its own Chinese restaurant? I was especially intrigued by Kwang Tung: Fogo Island was probably the most isolated place I could imagine – and one of the least diverse. I scoured the Internet for more information.
An image search revealed one last clue. A photographer from Montreal had visited the restaurant a few years ago, capturing an image of a faded white building. Above the door hung a Pepsi sign, with the restaurant’s name etched in Charlie Chan-style lettering.
In front of the restaurant stood a woman with short black hair. She looked to be in her 50s, dressed simply in a T-shirt, dark slacks and grey sneakers. Her lips curved upwards. According to the caption, her name was Huang Feng Zhu. She ran the restaurant seven days a week, by herself: “She lives upstairs so basically she never leaves.”
I became determined to find Huang, to understand how she ended up running a Chinese restaurant on Fogo Island. I wanted to know how she wound up there alone. So I set out a plan: to drive across the country, visiting as many small-town Chinese restaurants as possible. I’d start on the West Coast, where the earliest wave of Chinese settlers began arriving in 1858. From there, I would make my way east across a 2 ½ -week period, roughly tracing the path of the railway.
The last stop would be Fogo Island, where I hoped to visit Huang at the mysterious Kwang Tung Restaurant.
Meet the restaurateurs
Peter Li Diana’s Restaurant in Drumheller, Alta.
Born: Beijing. He and his wife, Linda Xie, moved to Drumheller about 10 years ago, where Mr. Li’s uncle was running a different Chinese restaurant.
On living in a small town: “Nothing too exciting. Every day, same same. But I still miss China. There’s no choice. My family, kids, are all here.”
Why not move to Calgary or Edmonton? “Not right now. We’re from a big city. We don’t like living in big cities.”
Lan Huynh, 44 Thai Woks N’go Restaurant in Glendon, Alta.
Born: Vietnam. Ms. Huynh was introduced to her husband, who has lived in Alberta since the age of 9, through relatives in Vietnam. After speaking on the phone just once, he flew to Vietnam, where they were married. Then she followed him, at the age of 30, to Canada. “I think coming here is better than staying there,” she said. Ms. Huynh and her husband have a 12-year-old son.
If you hadn’t come to Canada, what would your life looked like?“Look like nothing. But I came here, and worked hard, and it’s a little bit better.”
Guests of Gold Mountain
The first Chinese workers arrived on Vancouver Island in the mid-19th century. As they stepped off their ships from their long journey, Victoria was their first glimpse of this new country and their first step in their search for gold. A few decades later, between 1881 and 1885, thousands more would land here, for the promise of $1 a day, working to build the railway.
An entire infrastructure sprang up around these men, creating Canada’s first Chinatown along a four-block stretch of the city’s downtown. Some of them opened cafés and shops where labourers could stock up on supplies, have a meal or spend the night before the final leg of their journey to the Cariboo in search of gold, or to find back-breaking work on the railway that would eventually unify this country.
On a grey, rainy morning in mid-March, I flew from Toronto to Victoria, picked up a tiny rental car and drove straight toward this Chinatown. But if I had hoped to gain insight into the experiences of early settlers, I was out of luck. Chinatown’s labyrinth of brick buildings and narrow alleyways – once crowded with tenements and brothels – is now the site of coffee shops and office space for tech startups.
By the mid-20th century, many of the city’s Chinese had moved to Vancouver and across the country, essentially leaving Victoria as a museum, a Chinatown for tourists with street fixtures decorated in red and gold dragons. Only a few hints of the original Chinese remain, like the Chinese public school that was built in 1909 after locals complained that the Chinese children enrolled in regular public schools didn’t belong.
On the second day of my trip, in Vancouver, I sat with history professor Henry Yu in a cafeteria on the lush green University of British Columbia campus. “Nobody goes halfway around the world on a whim,” he said. He explained that before anything else, I’d first have to understand Gold Mountain.
Gum san, or Gold Mountain, was the nickname the first Chinese workers – the gold-rush-seekers and the railway builders – gave to this place. Up until the mid-20th century almost all of Canada’s Chinese immigrants came from the southern Guangdong province, an area clustered around the Pearl River delta and prone to floods, earthquakes and drought. The vast majority came from the same four poverty-stricken counties: Toisan, Hoyping, Yinping and Sunwui.
What these early settlers had in common was a wealthy relative who had gone abroad. Known as the “guests of Gold Mountain,” these first adventurers had returned to China with unthinkable luxuries, like Singer sewing machines. They built houses for their families and schools where their children could study.
Their younger relatives all heard the same story: that if they left behind their lives in China for Gold Mountain, they, too, could bring back riches. The young men watched their heroes with stars in their eyes, said Yu. “They thought to themselves: ‘I want to be that guy. Wherever he went, I want to go.”
What many people still don’t understand, Yu said, is that Gold Mountain wasn’t simply a place. The Chinese called the mountains surrounding the Fraser Valley Gold Mountain. But they also called the golden wheat fields of the Prairies and the lush green forests of Northern Ontario Gold Mountain. The United States was Gold Mountain, too. So was Australia.
To them, Gold Mountain was the whole idea – a life cycle where young men from poor families could go abroad and strike it rich enough to change their family’s destiny. But that required an initial cash investment, which was generally borrowed from a relative who had already made it in Gold Mountain.
The loan would normally take a few years to pay off, especially because of anti-Chinese laws that prevented these early immigrants from working in all but a few businesses: laundries, convenience stores or restaurants. Early cafés were Chinese only by virtue of their owners – the menus generally listed Western dishes, like hot turkey sandwiches and fried veal cutlets.
Once the loans were paid off, these men were free to set up their own business. To avoid competition, they would often start it in the next town or railway stop over. Slowly and gradually, these restaurants multiplied, appearing first in major cities, and then spreading outward, like spiderwebs. Anywhere the railway stopped – through the Rockies, the Prairies, out east – the restaurants would also travel, until they were all across the country.
As I drove around Vancouver, I saw few signs of the original Chinese cafés. Chinese food in the city today reflects the many waves of immigrants that have come since. My own parents moved from Hong Kong and Guangdong to Canada in the 1970s. They weren’t alone. After Canada liberalized its immigration policy in the late 1960s, massive numbers of Hong Kongers and Taiwanese came to Vancouver, among them highly skilled, mostly Cantonese-trained chefs.
Recently, the Chinese food has gotten even better. Newcomers from all over mainland China have brought with them wealth – as evidenced by gilded seafood restaurants serving $100-a-plate fried rice – and a rich diversity of regional cuisines. Driving past Richmond, the Vancouver suburb where many recent immigrants have settled, I passed crowded strip malls selling everything from mala Sichuanese, Shanghai crab dumplings, to fragrant Hainanese chicken rice.
I wondered what this dizzying mix had in common with Huang, her fried egg rolls and her little restaurant in Fogo. At every step, I was putting together more pieces of her puzzle. The name of her restaurant, Kwang Tung, was just another way to spell Guangdong. Canton, Kwang Tung, Guangdong – they all refer to the same southern province from where the Gold Mountain men had originally come. It was likely, I thought, that Huang had already been here for some time.
I remembered Yu’s last words before he dashed off. “What connects it all is family,” he said. Chinese newcomers rarely still refer to this place as Gold Mountain, he said. But their motivation for coming here – and for immigrants from all over the world since – is often still the same: a promise of a better future for the next generation.
“The restaurants are just the vehicles. It’s all about the families.”
Pioneering restaurant owner Bing Foon Choy and his wife, Poy Fong Choy.
The community living room
The next leg of my trip was the long drive out of Vancouver and into Alberta. For days, the mountains had gawked down at me, like giants at a parade. Now, as I inched further east, the mountains gave way to massive plains and wide, open road. The sky felt bigger. Bluer.
This was where, in the latter half of the 19th century, the Canadian government offered cheap and free land to European, American and eastern Canadian settlers, in an attempt to encourage mass settlement: Promising a better life to those willing to take on a rugged space with harsh climates and long, lonely winters. As I drove, I wondered about these settlers and what they had in common with Huang. I wondered what feelings they all shared about leaving behind their homes to come to this new, hostile place. Was it desperation? Ambition? Hope?
In the Prairies, I would find all three.
About a 40-minute drive west of Edmonton, beyond the industrial sprawl of the city and amid long stretches of farmland, is the 15,000-person town of Stony Plain, Alta. On most weekends, you can find William Choy cooking in the kitchen at Bing’s #1 Restaurant.
It shouldn’t be unusual that Choy works in the kitchen. After all, the mild-mannered, bespectacled 42-year-old owns the restaurant and grew up in it, too. As a child, he watched as his grandfather Bing Choy, who opened the place in 1970, worked in the same crowded kitchen. And by the time his own father Fon Choy took over, Choy himself was old enough to help out – wiping down the red formica tables, topping up cups with coffee, and whatever else needed doing.
But what makes it unusual is Choy’s part-time job: He’s also the mayor of the town.
Like most of the Gold Mountain men, Bing Choy left his wife and children behind when he came to Canada in the mid-1960s. That’s in part because it was cheaper for the families to stay in China, but also because of restrictions on immigration. To protect jobs for non-Chinese Canadians, the government imposed a head tax in the late 19th century on Chinese entering the country. This was followed in 1923 by the Chinese Immigration Act, which closed off Chinese immigration almost entirely until 1947.
This legalized discrimination set the tone for anti-Chinese sentiments across the country – including in cities like Vancouver and Toronto, where Chinese restaurant owners were subject to police harassment, as well as violence and vandalism. It wasn’t until 1967 that Chinese were allowed to enter this country based on the same criteria as others. The rest of the Choy family came over in 1980, including six-year-old William, the future mayor.
Many of his childhood memories revolve around the restaurant. He raced home from school at midday to help out with the lunch rush, and did his homework in the basement storage room. “Free time” on weekends was spent helping out at the restaurant, too. It was only natural, then, that after graduating university with a teaching degree in an economic downturn, he returned to the restaurant. In 1997, he officially took over, though his parents continue to help out.
The restaurants are just the vehicles. It’s all about the families
Henry Yu, UBC history professor
Choy calls Bing’s the “community living room,” and driving from town to town showed that it’s not alone in serving this purpose. In Vulcan, Alta. – an 1,800-person town decked out in Star Trek paraphernalia – Lin Qin’s restaurant, Amy’s, is where seniors’ groups gather for lunch. And in Grenfell, Sask., Moon’s Cafe is owned by 46-year-old recent immigrant Moon Wei who, like Huang in Fogo, runs the restaurant alone. Moon’s is where elderly men spend their afternoons, nursing cups of coffee while leafing through newspapers.
A few years ago, Linda Tzang, a curator at the Royal Alberta Museum, put together an exhibition on how small-town Chinese restaurants have historically served as Canada’s mail-sorting facilities, child-care centres and even fire stations. “It was just whatever they could do to keep their businesses afloat,” she said. She even came across one Alberta town where the restaurant was so crucial to the community that when the owners retired, locals recruited a new family from China to take over.
Many of Canada’s small-town Chinese restaurant owners spoke to me about loneliness, and feeling alienated. But for the Choy family, living in a small town made things easier, he said. Regulars would offer English lessons and other help to his parents. They’d point to their coffee cups as they were drinking, mouthing slowly the words: “Coffee. Cup.”
“You’re not lost in the whole mass of things,” Choy said. “They’re more willing to give a hand.” Choy and his siblings now all have houses and families of their own. “I’m the mayor of the community we grew up in,” says Choy. “Things like that couldn’t happen in China, right?”
Since Choy was first elected in 2012, he has worked both jobs, running back and forth, often pulling off a grease-splattered apron midday to attend a town meeting. “This is my business, where we came from,” Choy told me in his kitchen, as he fried a large platter of rice. He covered his wok with a lid, then shuffled out to the dining room. Hanging on the back wall were four black-and-white photographs: pictures of the Guangdong village where Choy was born.
Behind him in the kitchen, his mother Jean beamed. I asked if this is what she had imagined for her son.
“No,” the 65-year-old said in the Toisan dialect. Running for mayor was entirely his idea – entirely outside of her comprehension, and the life she knew growing up in a village in Guangdong. “How could I even have imagined it?” Ms. Choy said, grinning her gap-toothed grin. “How could I have imagined it?”
Chop suey in the age of oil shock
It’s not just the Chinese who came looking for Gold Mountain. It’s a journey many continue to make today.
The past few decades have seen tens of thousands of young men and women – many of them immigrants from Somalia, Jamaica and the Middle East – flock to the Prairie oil sands seeking black gold. Using pumps and shovels to extract the liquid from deep beneath the earth, they hope to fund their own version of a better life, their own Gold Mountain.
But just as gold in the Cariboo didn’t last, fortunes here have also changed. As common as the sight of oil rigs and cattle ranches along the highway, was the sight of pickup trucks carrying mattresses and furniture, entire lives, as young men head east and out of the prairies.
As I walked into the empty dining room of Thai Woks N’go in Glendon, Alta., a Buddha-faced boy lay napping in a sunny spot across two dining chairs. At the sound of the door opening, he leaped up, eyes wide. “Customer!” he shouted.
Lan Huynh, the boy’s mother, said her restaurant used to be busy. Local oil workers were making $60 an hour (to her, an unimaginable sum) and a steady stream of customers would come in, ordering the “Chinese pierogis.” Glendon has a large Ukranian population, and a sculpture across the street from the restaurant is labelled the “world’s largest pierogi” – Lan serves a Chinese version, similar to regular Chinese dumplings, stuffed with meat and vegetables and deep-fried until crispy. She also serves Ukrainian ones, light and fluffy, with fried sausage, onions and sour cream.
Now many workers have been laid off. The restaurant depends on the 480 people who live here year-round, most of them also feeling the oil shock.
Even with business slowing down, Lan isn’t convinced moving is the solution. She believes, as do many others I spoke with, that small towns are better places for raising children. Plus, she said, the restaurant industry in cities like Edmonton is too competitive and the cost of living too high.
In Drumheller, Alta., Peter Li told me that business has dropped by about 30 per cent at Diana, his restaurant with red-vinyl booths and decorated with dragons hanging from the ceiling. In the same period, food costs have risen. “A case of broccoli is $90,” he says. “Before, it was $30.”
One of the most popular items at Diana is uniquely Chinese-Canadian: Ginger beef. The dish, first created in Calgary in the 1970s, was a loose interpretation of a northern Chinese beef dish with tangerine and chilis, but sweetened and mellowed to suit Western palates. Despite its name, it has almost no ginger in it. “The Alberta palate was so behind that they didn’t recognize sweet chili sauce,” explained Tzang, the museum curator. “They started asking for beef with ‘that ginger stuff.’”
Li is a trained chef who has worked in some of the biggest restaurants around Beijing, but when he first arrived in Drumheller he had to learn a new repertoire of chop-suey dishes: “Egg foo young,” and “lemon chicken.” Compared to the food Li trained to cook – delicate Cantonese dishes, or the fiery spice mix of mapo tofu – this food is much simpler to make. “For me, it’s very easy,” he said. He’s tried a few times to cook here the way he’d cooked back home, but “the people here didn’t really like it.” Sitting at the front counter was a jar of Lao Gan Ma chili oil – often referred to as “angry lady sauce,” owing to the stern expression of the woman on the label. Li looked longingly at the jar of sauce, made of dried red chilis and numbing peppercorns steeped in oil. Here, it was just for display.
Li has just returned from a trip back to China, where many of his former colleagues have been promoted to prestigious kitchens. He sighed. “Before, I think Canada is pretty good, right? But it’s hard to make money here,” he said.
Alberta isn’t the only province that’s struggled from oil shock, and economic downturn. So too, has Newfoundland – where I was headed in search of Huang. Like the men in their pickup trucks, why hadn’t Huang driven to another town, to the possibility of an easier life?